The Israeli annexation plan and Jordan’s West Bank moment
Just over seven decades ago, Jordan annexed the West Bank following the first round of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948. It lost the territory to Israel in the June 1967 War and then ceded it to the Palestinians in 1988 by renouncing Jordanian claims to the West Bank. Today, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, Jordan faces difficult choices in appeasing domestic critics and preserving strategic relations with the United States while saving its peace treaty with Israel.
Israel plans to annex all the Israeli settlements established in the West Bank since 1967, in addition to the strategic Jordan Valley, an area that constitutes up to 30 percent of the West Bank. Netanyahu said on May 25 that the annexation would move forward in July once a map agreement is reached by a US-Israeli committee, one that excludes Palestinian and Jordanian representatives. Jordan’s King Abdullah II had warned on May 15 that “if Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” The stakes are high for Jordan and its reaction to this looming annexation might redefine the kingdom’s relations with both Israel and the United States.
Why Are the Stakes High for Jordan?
When it comes to Israel’s latest annexation plans, the most consequential issue for Amman is how this move will impact Palestinians living in Jordan who were Jordanian citizens until 1988, when the kingdom revoked their citizenship. This was after Jordan severed administrative ties with the West Bank and recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The Jordan Valley includes the lower course of the Jordan River, from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. Under the Oslo II Accord, the Jordan Valley falls under Area C, which is directly administrated by Israel, hence the annexation would put a stamp on the status quo.
It is not the first time Israel experiments with a plan to partition the West Bank. The most significant shift at present is that Tel Aviv is now singlehandedly making annexation plans with absolute support from Washington and what many see as complicit Arab silence. In 1967, former Israeli Minister Yigal Allon came up with a regional plan, which included partitioning the West Bank between Israel and Jordan. The Allon Plan aimed to annex most of the Jordan Valley, from the river to the eastern slopes of the West Bank, while the remaining parts would have been either a Palestinian autonomous territory or come under Jordanian control. King Hussein rejected this plan, however. The current Netanyahu approach echoes the Allon Plan, but the Israeli debate about the Palestinian or Jordanian option to control the Palestinian portion of the West Bank has now completely dissipated and has been replaced by the Israeli option.
Moreover, since 1967 Israel has gradually expanded activities in the Jordan Valley by allocating 86 percent of this area to Israeli settlements and benefiting from Jordan’s disengagement from the West Bank in 1988. Netanyahu said on May 28 that Palestinians, estimated to number around 65,000 who are living in the Jordan Valley, will not receive Israeli citizenship, asserting that these areas will remain “Palestinian enclaves” under Palestinian rule but Israeli security control.
The most crucial impact of the annexation is that it would potentially prevent the establishment of a future Palestinian state, hence leaving the fate of many Palestinians in Jordan up in the air. Between 2004 and 2008, Amman withdrew the citizenship of 2,700 Jordanians of Palestinian origin, as the kingdom’s relationship with the Palestinians living in Jordan has been complex since the Black September conflict in 1970-1971 between the Jordanian armed forces and the PLO.
The Hashemite Kingdom has always warned of Israel’s attempts to make “an alternative homeland” for the Palestinians in Jordan and the annexation plans feed this concern. With no path to citizenship in either Jordan or Israel, Palestinians living both in Jordan and the Jordan Valley could become increasingly marginalized and a source of tension across the Israeli-Jordanian border. According to the official Jordanian census released in 2016, of the 9.5 million inhabitants of Jordan, 630,000 are Palestinians—though many believe the number of Palestinians might be higher than that.
The domestic pressure on King Abdullah II will only increase if annexation plans take effect next month. The Islah parliamentary bloc, affiliated with Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, issued a statement1 in May urging the Jordanian government to adopt an emergency plan that includes annulling the peace treaty as well as Jordan’s gas import deals with Israel, which have long triggered protests in Jordan. This domestic pressure will only increase if the king does not give the impression of taking enough diplomatic measures against Israel.
Jordan and Israel: The End of the Peace Treaty?
Back in October 2009, King Abdullah described the Jordan-Israel peace treaty as follows: “It is a cold peace, and our relationship is getting colder.” More than a decade later, the situation on the ground only reinforces such a deterioration while straining the complex peace between the two countries. The 1994 treaty between them stipulated that the part of the Jordanian-Israeli border in question runs along the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers; at the same time, it also established the Jordan Valley area as an “administrative boundary” or buffer zone between Jordan and the Palestinians in the West Bank. The Netanyahu annexation plan eliminates this “administrative boundary” and includes it within the Israeli border, which violates the provision in the Jordan-Israel peace treaty requiring the Joint Boundary Commission to convene in order to alter this border line. However, the treaty kept an ambivalent disclaimer: “This line is the administrative boundary between Jordan and the territory which came under Israeli military government control in 1967. Any treatment of this line shall be without prejudice to the status of the territory.” The wording does not explicitly recognize the Jordan Valley as Palestinian territory; hence it left the door open for potential annexations.
For the kingdom, the annexation plan does not change the border status quo in the Jordan Valley as the Allenby Bridge (or King Hussein Bridge) Terminal that separates Jordan from the West Bank remains under Israeli control. However, the lack of coordination between the two sides could create a hostile environment for Israeli security forces and could potentially disrupt the link the West Bank has with the world via Jordan. In March 1997, during an earlier stint for Netanyahu as prime minister, a Jordanian soldier opened fire and killed seven Israeli schoolgirls visiting an Israeli-farmed area in the Jordan Valley. In March 2014, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Jordanian judge at the Allenby border crossing. These types of incidents could increase down the road as the unilateral annexation plans create uncertainty on both sides of the border.
Netanyahu noted recently that “the peace with Jordan is a vital interest not only for the State of Israel but also for Jordan” and seemed confident that this 1994 deal will stand: “I don’t think it’s going to change. However, it is natural that such moves raise concerns.” Jordanian officials are hinting that, as retaliation, Amman might suspend part of the 1994 peace treaty with Israel since the annexation violates the delineation of the border. Israel’s public attempt to appease Jordanian reaction seems to be working so far, as tensions remain under control. Nevertheless, Amman’s reaction will be tested and closely watched next month.
The US-Jordan Special Relationship Post Annexation
The US-Jordanian relationship is not at a breaking point, but it has become increasingly complicated with limited communication between President Donald Trump and King Abdullah. Soon after the White House unveiled the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in January, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi issued a measured statement saying that “the national interests of Jordan and its established and unwavering positions and principles towards the Palestinian issue governs the way the government deals with all proposals and initiatives aimed at resolving the conflict.” Jordanian authorities are most likely aware that there is little the Trump Administration is willing to do to stop Israel’s annexation plans. During US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel last month, it became clear that the most Washington would do is to make sure the Israeli government considers “all the factors involved” so that the annexation plan squares with Trump’s peace plan.
King Abdullah’s warning about “massive conflict” if Israel proceeds with the annexation provoked a chilly reception in Washington, which offered no high-level assurances to Amman. The only official reaction came from State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus who, on May 15, sent a message cautioning Amman about the escalation of tensions with Israel before shifting the focus back to Trump’s peace plan.
There is unease in the US-Jordanian relationship, which seemed evident in the letter sent last month by six Republican members of Congress to the Jordanian embassy in Washington demanding the extradition of Jordanian citizen Ahlam al-Tamimi, who was convicted in Israel for the 2001 bombing of a Jerusalem pizzeria. This move by Republican leaders seems like a veiled warning to Jordan that its rejection of the US request to extradite Tamimi for killing US citizens could be used as an alibi to prevent Amman from receiving US aid, which amounts to $1.8 billion a year. On May 28, Pompeo spoke over the phone with his Jordanian counterpart but the State Department statement did not include Israel’s annexation plans as one of the issues discussed. However, the readout of Jordan’s top diplomat reiterated “the Kingdom’s stance that opposes any annexation of Palestinian territories, a step that would only undermine peace opportunities.” There is an urgent need for a meeting between President Trump and King Abdullah to mitigate any impact on the relationship between the two countries; however, Trump seems to believe that Jordan has no option but to adapt to a decision on annexation if it wants to maintain current levels of US aid.
Jordan’s Options Moving Forward
Jordan has long faced recurring challenges in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The late King Hussein was anxious to reach a peace deal to resolve Jordan’s demographic conundrum but had a difficult relationship with the PLO. He believed that the long-standing impediments were internal Israeli divisions and US hesitance to pressure Israel to concede. These pre-existing conditions, however, are currently reversed given Israel’s coalition government deal on the annexation plan and the Trump Administration’s unconditional support.
In December 2017, when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Amman had limited options to register its opposition. Instead, Jordan began a gradual foreign policy shift that reached its peak last year by restoring a neutral position of reengaging with Turkey and Qatar. While this shift was partially driven by the lack of Saudi support, it was also an attempt by Jordan to hedge its bets, given the unstable nature of the Trump presidency. In that context, Netanyahu seems to be seeking to drive a wedge in Jordan’s regional alliances. Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper close to him, reported that US mediation between Saudi Arabia and Israel might lead to including Saudi representatives in the Islamic Waqf Council at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This idea is being floated in an attempt to deter Turkish influence in East Jerusalem; however, it could potentially undermine the Hashemite Kingdom’s custodianship of Jerusalem’s holy sites. This religious role might be the last vestige of Jordan’s role in the occupied West Bank and Amman has long resisted giving it up or even sharing it with other Arab states. Netanyahu seems to be attempting to tell King Abdullah that he has more to lose than win if he takes dramatic positions to challenge the Israeli annexation plan.A
Nevertheless, Jordan will most likely focus its retaliation on Israel instead of provoking the Trump Administration. Amman could potentially recall its ambassador in Israel and expel the Israeli ambassador in Jordan. The kingdom could also suspend some parts of the peace treaty with Israel, for instance the Joint Boundary Commission, or halt the military coordination and border security with Israel. But it might be too risky for Amman to annul the peace treaty and return to a state of conflict with Israel, a move that could also jeopardize the US military aid it receives annually. Jordan might have reached its limits in weighing options, given the country’s severe economic crisis, while struggling to cope with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. Jordan will have to walk a fine line between responding diplomatically to the annexation move while not burning bridges with the United States and Israel.
This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.